Will the Real Dad Please Stand Up!
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage, 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: June 24 – August 7, 2022
Ticket Prices: $36-$67
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
Some shows are meant to tell a story, some teach a lesson, some have a moral, and then there are those that are just pure and joyful entertainment. With its energetic and danceable music, familiar songs made popular in the 1970s by the group ABBA, and a stage filled with colorful costumes, throngs of dancers, and even dancing lights (thank you, Joe Doran), Mamma Mia! belongs to the latter category.
Things got off to a good start with a two or three minute Overture. The dancing lights, and upbeat music created a sense of anticipation, and then the company solidly delivered on its promise. After briefly introducing the main characters, Mamma Mia! jumped right into a large ensemble production of “Money, Money, Money” that soon led to the popular “Dancing Queen.” Not to be outdone by the women, the groomsmen and men of the ensemble danced out in flippers (swim fins) and a huge ensemble closed out the first act with a highly animated “Voulez Vous.” The second act was dominated by a series of duets with all the main characters taking turns and ended with a mini concert disguised as an extended encore. Some in the audience came prepared to party, with feather boas and animated applause. I hope the cast felt the positive energy. I know I laughed and smiled until my face hurt.
Background and Spoiler Alert
Most everyone has heard of Mamma Mia! but there are a few – like me – who had somehow never seen any version of it, neither the long-running Broadway hit show or the film series. Mamma Mia!, in spite of its Italian title, was created by a team of British artists and set on the fictitious Greek island of Kalokairi. There we find Sophie, the love-child of a former free-spirited hippie, Donna who once led a girl band, the Dynamos. Sophie is twenty and about to get married, something her mother cannot get on board with, not because she doesn’t like Sophie’s beloved, Sky, but because she doesn’t believe in marriage. To complicate things – because after all, without conflict there would be no plot – at this momentous occasion in her life, Sophie has discovered a deep need to know who her father is, so she scours her mother’s diary, uncovers three possible candidates, and without her mother’s knowledge or permission invites them all to her wedding in hopes of having her father walk her down the aisle for her traditional “white wedding.”
The cast is populated by familiar and new-to-Richmond/VaRep names and faces, and I loved them all. Hannah Jennison played bride-to-be Sophie with a credible grounded freshness. Emelie Faith Thompson gave Sophie’s mother Donna generous doses of sassiness and vulnerability and released her character’s personality in measured doses, as if well aware that too much Donna all at once was more than the average person could handle. Grey Garrett, as Donna’s friend Tanya, drew applause and cheers from the audience even before she spoke her first word, and like the glamorous, thrice-divorced auntie that most families seem to have – and who shows up to all the family celebrations – she was equally comfortable flirting with men half her age and offering wise guidance to her niece.
You are(not) the father!
Now, to return, even if only briefly, to the main plot, the three possible dads are Harry (Anthony CeFaia), Bill (Jason Krypos), and Sam (Alexander Sapp). Each had a special relationship with Donna, and Donna was never one to kiss and tell: dot, dot, dot (inside joke). Each also had a compelling reason to be revealed as Sophie’s father, but, driven by secrecy – both Donna’s reticence about her past and her own unauthorized inspection of her mother’s diary – Sophie had no DNA test results to clear up the mystery.
Good/Bad News Comes in Threes
Just as there were three possible dads, the women were cast in groups of three as well. Donna had two best friends, her former back-up singers, Tanya (Garrett) and Rosie (Catrina Brenae), and so did Sophie: Ali (Havy Nguyen) and Lisa (Jana Prentiss). Even Sky (Micah Cook on opening night; a character who was never as fully developed as the women) had two close friends, the flirtatious Pepper (Connor Macchi) and the more dependable Eddie (Johnny Reardon), both of whom worked at the taverna (a Greek restaurant, this one included a B&B) built and run by Sophie’s mother Donna (Thompson).
It comes as no surprise that the planned wedding does not go on as scheduled, but there is a surprise wedding (I guess you don’t need a license in Greece, at least not in musical Greece) as well as a surprise romance, which comes as no surprise.
Encore and Finale
One of the best parts of Mamma Mia! is the encore and finale. I noticed Donna and a few others disappear during the final bows, and sure enough Donna and the Dynamos reappeared in brightly colored, ABBA-inspired costumes in red, orange, and yellow – exaggerated bell bottoms, futuristic extended shoulders, and blinged out to the max – only to be joined by the Dads wearing matching outfits and silver platform boots. The company sent the audience out dancing and singing along to “Mamma Mia!” “Dancing Queen,” and more. Mamma Mia! may or may not be perfect, but it is perfectly suited to these times. For some audience members, it was the first time out to a live show since “the time before,” and for others it was a much-needed release after months of disturbing breaking news reports. First produced onstage in 1999, the music is popular enough to span generations, popular enough to be familiar, and old enough to not stir up any controversy or salt any open wounds – it’s a feel-good musical through and through.
With a large cast and lots of choreography, the set was kept simple with a minimalist rotating design representing Donna’s taverna – which looked somewhat Spanish or Moorish to my untrained eye. Most of the visual effects were wisely focused on the costumes and lighting. The band was placed in the orchestra pit, instead of hidden behind the scrim, adding even more of a Broadway, big-stage feeling. The direction (Happy Mahaney), music (Sandy Dacus), and choreography (Ashleigh King) appeared to work together seamlessly, maintaining a fast pace, a high level of energy, and drawing the audience in willingly. A plot was hardly necessary, but there is an actual story-line, and a sub-plot that make sense and is easy to follow. Mamma Mia! hits the target as a summer musical.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Originally conceived by Judy Crayner
Direction by Happy Mahaney
Sophie Sheridan —– Hannah Jennison
Ali —– Havy Nguyen
Lisa —– Jana Prentiss
Donna Sheridan —– Emelie Faith Thompson
Tanya —– Grey Garrett
Rosie —– Catrina Brenae
Sky (through 6/26) —– Micah Cook
Sky (beginning 6/29) —– Donathan Arnold
Pepper —– Connor Macchi
Eddie —– Johnny Reardon
Harry Bright —– Anthony CeFala
Bill Austin —– Jason Kypros
Sam Carmichael —– Alexander Sapp
Ensemble —– Mikaela Craft, Emily Dandridge, Paul Dandridge,
Janiece Deveaux, Evelyn Dumeer, Jianna Hurt,
Brandon McKinney, Chandler James Pettus, David Ramirez,
Shannon Schilstra, Caleb Wade, Kayla Xavier
Scenic Design – Josafath Reynoso
Costume Design – Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey
Lighting Design – Joe Doran
Sound Design – Jacob Mishler
Stage Management – Justin Janke
Music Direction – Sandy Dacus
Choreography – Ashleigh King
Direction – Happy Mahaney
Keyboard 1/Conductor – Sandy Dacus
Keyboard 2 – Leilani Fenick
Keyboard 3 – David C. Robbins, Joy Weaver*
Keyboard 4 – Ian Krauss
Bass – Jeff Smick
Guitar 1 – Ed Drake
Guitar 2 – Hannon D. Lane, Rinatt Montoya*
Drums/Percussion – Bentley Cobb, Joe Lubman*
*(substituting at select performances)
Run Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission
Box Office: 804-282-2620
Tickets range from $36 – $67
Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets available.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten
Updated Virginia Rep COVID Guidelines
Masks, covering the face and nose, are required for all patrons while inside VaRep venues, lobbies and restrooms except when actively eating or drinking.
(Note: on opening night, the bar was open for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with canned and bottle drinks and snacks.)
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